April fool’s day is probably one of the most widely recognized non-religious holidays in the Western world, where family, friends, coworkers and even businesses play pranks, gags and lighthearted jokes on one another for a good laugh. But have you ever wondered how this pranking tradition got started? Let’s explore April fool’s day in France and how France may have played a part in popularizing this fun day.
April fool’s day traditions in France
How is April fool’s day in France celebrated? Let’s start with the basics.
1) What is April fool’s day called in French?
April Fool’s day is called “Poisson d’avril” in French and most Francophone areas, including French-speaking Quebec, Canada.
2) What does “poisson d’avril” mean in English?
Poisson d’avril” means “April fish” in English. And as far as I know, only Francophone areas and Italy refer to April fools day as April fish (in Italian, “Pesce d’Aprile.”)
If you were to translate the English phrase “April Fools day” word for word to French, it would be “Jour des fous.” But don’t say that to someone in France, because they would have no idea what you were talking about.
Here is what April fool’s day is called in a few other countries worldwide.
- Brazil: “Dia da Mentira” (Day of Lies.)
- Denmark: “Første april” (First of April)
- Finland: “Huhtikuun ensimmäinen päivä” (First of April)
- Germany: “Narrenschiff”(Ship of Fools)
- Japan: “エイプリルフール” (loanword from the English “April Fool’s.”)
- Netherlands: “De Dag van de Dolleman” (The Day of the Fool)
- Norway: “Første april”(First of April)
- Russia: “День дурака” (Fool’s Day)
- Spain: “Día de los Santos Inocentes” (Day of the Holy Innocents)
- Sweden: “Första april” (First of April)
How is April fool’s day in France celebrated?
Like most countries, playing tricks and gags on unsuspecting victims is part of the fun of poisson d’avril in France. However, there’s one traditional prank that not many other countries besides Italy and other French-speaking areas have, and it involves a fish.
The paper fish on the back prank!
The fish prank is a common gag, especially among school-aged children, who draw or print out a fish and stick it to the back of unsuspecting victims. Once the unfortunate fool discovers the fish taped to their back, the kids scurry away, cackling and shouting: “Poisson d’avril, Poisson d’aviril.”
Why a fish? No one knows for sure, but there are plenty of theories that I’ll go over in a minute.
I made this printable fish which you can download.
Print this at home and scotch it to someone’s back.
Adults and Even businesses play pranks and hoaxes on April Fish day in France:
It’s not just kids who love pranking their friends and parents. Adults like to get in on the action too.
From simple pranks on friends, family and co-workers to elaborate fake news hoaxes and marketing pranks.
Here are a few examples of business pranks played on the public
Nice-Matin: In 2018, the news outlet Nice-Matin published an April fools day hoax article about the famous blue chairs along the beautiful “Promenade des Anglais,” stating that they were replaced by mundane yellow chairs.
Var-Matin: In 2017, news outlet Var-Matin played an especially cruel hoax on April first by reporting that the traditional French game of Boules would be banned.
French food company Bonduelle: In 2018, Bonduelle announced that they were introducing a “vegetable-based” wine made from beets, carrots, and spinach.
RATP Paris Metro Stations: Regularly prank commuters with playful name changes using wordplay and puns.
- “Opéra” metro station was renamed “Apéro,” The famous French predinner cocktail hour with drinks and small bites.
- “Télégraphe” metro station became “#Tweet” station
- “Quatre Septembre” station became “1er Avril” station.
- And to ensure the pranks get some excellent marketing and publicity, RATP uses the hashtag #StationdAvril.
The above image is an example of a Paris metro station renamed as part of April fool’s day pranks in France.
J’aurais and Jaurès are pronounced the same but have two different meanings.
- Jaurès is the actual name of the metro station, named after Jean jaurės (think).
- J’aurais means “I would have.”
The pun is supposed to say, “Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas venu” (If I had known, I would not have come.” Get it? It’s a pun.)
How French April Fools day (Poisson d’Avril) used to be celebrated in the past!
Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, people in France sent comical yet adorable postcards on April 1st for poisson d’avril and sometimes exchanged gifts.
The cards usually wished friends and family good fortune, love, friendship or happiness. April first used to be when New Year was celebrated in some parts of France. More about this later.
Today, people still send New Year’s cards; however, now they send them on the first of January, sans le fish, of course.
Why do French people call April First “April Fish?”
Or how did the fish get associated with April fool’s day?
There are many theories about how the fish became the symbol of April fool’s day in France (and a few other countries), but at best, these are vague speculations. Here are a few that I know about.
The Fisherman Theory
Historically, fishermen were prohibited from fishing during April because it was the breeding period for fish. Some say it became a joke to send naive people to buy fish at the market when it was out of season. After all, only a fool would try to purchase fish during a period when it wasn’t available.
The Lent Theory
Another explanation is that since parts of Christian Europe celebrated the New year during Lent, a fasting period where the only meat one could eat was fish, people gave fish as gifts for the New Year.
The Christian Fish Symbol Theory
Keep in mind that April 1, AD 33, is the date that Jesus Christ had the “Last Supper” and the crucifixion was on Friday, 3 April using the Gregorian calendar.
Early Christians used to identify themselves with a secret sign or symbol in the form of a fish known as ICHTHYS, which is an acronym from the Greek phrase Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ ( Jesus Christ, Son Of God, Savior.”
If you take the first letter from each word in that Greek phrase, you have the acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthus), which happens to be the Koine Greek word for “fish.”
It was a symbol that attracted little suspicion, making it a perfect secret symbol for persecuted Christians.
Remember that Christianity borrowed many symbols from Roman, Greek and Egyptian cults and Pagan religions. The fish as a symbol and food was important to these old religions and cults long before Christians ever used it.
Origins of April Fools Day in France: Possibly started from the switch in New years day
One theory is that playing pranks on April 1st is tied to changing the New Year’s date.
Although most countries now celebrate the New Year on January 1st, this wasn’t always the case. Playing pranks on slow adopters to the January 1st New Year’s date and calling them fools may have been a way to shame them and make fun of them.
Having different dates wasn’t unusual. Throughout recorded history, most cultures used different dates that were central to their lives or dates tied to religion.
For example: Here were a few old New years dates in France (and many other Christian countries)
- Some areas already adopted the January 1st New Year’s date, which was the date during the Julian Calendar.
- The Diocese in
Savoie, France, celebrated New year on December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
- Other regions of France recognized Easter Sunday as the New year: the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus (a moveable date), which could fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25th.
- A large part of France celebrated the new year on March 25th, “la fête de l’Annonciation” (the Feast of the Annunciation), in honour of the date of the conception of Jesus. (Also spring equinox)
April 1st: Many towns in France and Europe celebrated the new years on “The Feast of the Annunciation” which lasted seven days from March 25th and ended on April 1st.
1567: when the celebration of the New Year officially moved to January 1st in France
Fed up with the different New Year dates, which were confusing and caused an administrative fiasco, Catherine de Médicis organized “Le Grand Tour De France” for her 11-year-old son, King Charles IX, to get to know the kingdom and his people.
For two years, beginning January of 1564 through May 1st, 1566, King Charles IX, his mother and an entourage of nearly 2000 people travelled over 400 kilometres through some of the most remote border areas of the French kingdom.
Along one of the stops on “Le grand tour de France” in the town of Roussillon, the king issued the (Édit de Roussillon) on August 9th, 1564.
An édict is a decree or announcement of a law, often associated with monarchism.
This new law decreed that the New Year would begin on January 1st throughout the entire French Kingdom, beginning on January 1st, 1567. At the time, the German Emperor had already fixed January 1st as the New Year’s date.
When the Catholic Church sanctioned the new Gregorian Calendar in February 15 years later, in 1582, the January 1st New years date started to take off.
You might be interested in reading about 15 fun French New Year’s Eve Traditions In France.
Some people made fun of and played pranks on slow adopters of the January 1st new years date
After King Charles IX switched to the newly decreed January 1st New Year’s date, some people ignored the new date. Others were unaware of the change for years and continued celebrating New Year’s in April or other dates. News travelled slowly back then.
Some historians believe that (slow adopters) people who continued to celebrate New Year on the old date were mocked, shamed and labelled “fools” by those who had adopted the new January 1st New Year’s date.
They would drop in, sometimes bringing fake gag New Year gifts. Back then, it was customary for people to visit friends, family and neighbours for the April 1st New Year and give gifts or tithes.
Thus the tradition of playing pranks on April first began. Or so it did if you believe this theory which isn’t universally accepted.
The Roman theory of April Fools Day
Another theory is that April Fools’ Day is much older and may have descended from “Hilaria,” celebrated on November 3 and March 25th, 7 days before the 1st of April (Calends).
Hilaria was a day of merriment, pranks, and rejoicing. It was one of several days in the festival of Cybele that honoured Attis.
Many of our current celebrations are tied to roman, greek and Egyptian festivals, such as Mardi Gras and Carnival.
You might be interested in reading about Are these 15 French New Year’s Eve Foods Too Weird For You To Eat?
April Fools Day: Modern Celebration
While the story of April fools day starting in France is just one of many legends, there are many more theories on the origins starting in other countries. We may never know for sure how it started.
Currently, playing pranks on April 1st is celebrated in many countries worldwide. Each with its little idiosyncrasies.
But France, Italy and French-speaking regions, such as the province of Quebec, Canada, are the only places that call this day April Fish and have the custom of sticking paper fish on the backs as a prank.
One last thing. If you’re ever in France on April first, keep your eye out for fish-shaped chocolates sold in stores through Easter.
Happy April Fools Day! Or is it?